Microglia, brain cells that are part of the immune system, are more activated in young men with autism than in controls, according to a brain imaging study published 26 November in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Postmortem studies have shown that microglia are altered in autism, but the new study marks the first time that researchers have tracked the cells in living people with the disorder.
Microglia are known to rapidly transform from a spider-shaped resting state into a bulbous active state when they’re fighting off infection or damage. But the role of activated microglia in autism and related disorders is complex and largely mysterious. For example, studies in the past couple of years have shown that active microglia are important not only for immunity, but for the development of a healthy brain.
It’s not yet clear what the findings from the new study mean. But experts say that tracking microglia activity in live brains could be used as a biomarker of how the brain changes over time, such as before and after a new treatment.
“Doing this in vivo characterization gives a more dynamic perspective of what these cells are doing in the brain,” notes Carlos Pardo, associate professor of neurology and neuropathology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who was not involved in the work.
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